Putin's Playbook: The Strategy Behind Russia's Takeover of Crimea

Is the Crimean crisis just the latest example of Moscow's support for secessionist movements?
A soldier looks out from a Russian army vehicle outside a Ukrainian border guard post in the Crimean town of Balaclava, on March 1. (Reuters/Baz Ratner)

It seemed like a classic example of euphemistic bureaucrat-speak when, on Friday, U.S. officials referred to the deployment of Russian troops in Crimea as an "uncontested arrival" rather than an invasion.

But terminology matters here. Take the word "uncontested": The southern peninsula of Crimea, which the Soviet Union transferred to Ukraine in 1954 and which now hosts the Russian military's Black Sea Fleet, is the only region in the country where ethnic Russians are a majority (60 percent of a population of 2 million). And a good number of them favor closer relations with, if not outright annexation by, Moscow; according to one recent poll, 42 percent of Crimean residents want Ukraine to unite with Russia. That doesn't mean there are no Ukrainian nationalists or Kremlin opponents in Crimea—there certainly are—but it does mean many people in the autonomous republic, spooked by the ouster last week of Ukraine's pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych, welcome Russian military intervention.

Or take the word "arrival": If this is an invasion, it's a disorienting and not yet fully formed one. There were the shadowy, Russian-speaking gunmen who fanned out across Crimea on Friday, seizing government buildings and airports. And then there was the series of seemingly orchestrated events on Saturday: Crimea's freshly minted prime minister pleading for Russian help; Russia's lower house of parliament urging Vladimir Putin to "stabilize" Crimea, the Russian president obliging; the upper house swiftly granting him the authority to use force in Ukraine. Putin is pledging to make his next move soon, as his military masses and the White House fumes. All told, we're now witnessing what Reuters is calling the "biggest confrontation between Russia and the West since the Cold War."

So what should we call the worrying developments in Ukraine? And what is Putin thinking? Back in 2008, Thomas de Waal, an expert on the South Caucasus, argued that Putin's greatest legacy is something de Waal called "soft annexation," which, at the time, was underway in Georgia's breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The idea, expressed in various forms over the years, is that Russia is pulling political, economic, and military levers—all of which fall short of traditional invasion—to exploit ethnic conflicts in countries that used to be in its orbit. And the goal is to leverage these tensions, which are often relics of the Soviet Union's messy consolidation and collapse, to gain influence in former Soviet states, while preventing these countries from moving closer to the West.

When, for instance, Ukraine was considering a treaty with the European Union earlier this year, Fiona Hill and Steven Pifer of the Brookings Institution penned a prescient memo warning of ways Russia could retaliate politically and economically against Kiev:

Putin perceives the European Union as a genuine strategic threat. The threat comes from the EU’s potential to reform associated countries in ways that pull them away from Russia. The EU’s Association Agreements and DCFTAs are incompatible with Putin’s plan to expand Russia’s Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan and create a “Eurasian Union.” Putin’s goal is to secure markets for Russian products and guarantee Russian jobs. He also sees the Eurasian Union as a buffer against alien “civilizational” ideas and values from Europe and the West....

Moscow could take actions that weaken the coherence of the Ukrainian state, e.g., by appealing to ethnic Russians in Crimea, or even by provoking a violent clash in Sevastopol, leading to the deployment of Russian naval infantry troops from the Black Sea Fleet to “protect” ethnic Russians.

One of the most consequential questions now is whether Putin's gambit in Ukraine will follow the model of Russia's previous support for secessionist movements in former Soviet states (and particularly in the Black Sea region), or whether it represents a break with that approach.

The Moldovan prime minister, for his part, sees in Ukraine's crisis echoes of Moscow's backing of the breakaway province of Transnistria, another pro-Kremlin territory with a large ethnic Russian population. In the early 1990s, Transnistria declared independence from Moldova, sparking a brief war between a complex constellation of regional forces that included a Russian military unit known as the 14th Army. Russia now stations troops on the wisp of land along the Ukrainian border, and provides Transnistria with financial assistance. Negotiations to resolve its status are frozen.

Wikimedia Commons

Many others are comparing the current situation to Russia's intervention in Georgia in 2008 over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which also have small ethnic Russian populations. Russia sent peacekeepers to the territories, and dispatched its military to ostensibly protect those troops when Georgia tried to reclaim South Ossetia by force in the summer. That war lasted five days and left Russia in control of the provinces, both of which are now home to Russian military bases.

There are several similarities between these cases and that of Crimea: the separatist rumblings in ex-Soviet states turning away from Russia, the appeals of ethnic Russians in the territories for the Kremlin's help, the forward deployment of Russian troops. In the lead-up to the latest standoff, for instance, the Russian consulate in the Crimean capital of Simferopol had stoked controversy by issuing Russian passports to ethnic Russian Crimeans—a practice Moscow also employed in South Ossetia ahead of the conflict there.

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Uri Friedman is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Global Channel. He was previously the deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy.

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